There can be no doubt about the impact of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy; his adaptation of Tolkien’s opus is rightly regarded as a modern masterpiece, one that ushered in a new era of filmmaking in much the same way another certain trilogy did back in the 1970s and ’80s. They were works of passion, and it showed. The blood, sweat, and tears of both the filmmaker and his stars were apparent, front and center for all to see. As a result, the films became the sort of cultural touchstone that only seems to manifest once in a generation. It was a worldwide phenomenon that single-handedly relit the fires of interest for both fantasy and the sweeping epic.
Indeed, in the 13 years since the original film, Fellowship of the Ring, first hit theaters, the movie-going public has seen film after film attempt to recapture the feeling of awe and wonder that we felt when we were first transported to the world of Middle-earth — mostly with little success. The attempt to turn rival fantasy book series The Chronicles of Narnia fell flat on its face, leaving the series as yet unfinished, languishing in a sort of purgatory between development hell and direct to video fodder (I’ll let you decide which fate is worse); His Dark Materials proved to be less than expected with its first movie, The Golden Compass, failing in just about every regard. Then there were the epic flops like Conan and John Carter, both of which disappointed fans and critics alike and have become cautionary tales about the perils of expecting a movie to succeed solely on the basis of brand recognition.
Still, despite all of these failures and flops and misfires, one can’t help but wonder if the most egregious attempt to cash in on the success of Lord of the Rings isn’t, in fact, Jackson’s return to Middle-earth, The Hobbit. The latest, and presumably final, entry in Jackson’s Middle-earth series, The Battle of the Five Armies, suffers from all of the problems that plagued the first two entries of this trilogy: The passion is lacking, the pacing is all wrong, and the whole thing just feels, at best, completely rote. The end result is a film that feels largely unnecessary, even if it’s cool to look at and kind of fun to watch.
The movie picks up right where the last one left off, with the dragon Smaug preparing for an assault on Lake Town, and things go wrong almost immediately. The ending of last year’s Desolation of Smaug may have left audiences wanting more, but the fiery attack feels lacking – considering the year we were made to wait to see it. There’s no denying the scene is packed with tense moments and beautiful action, but the decision to include it here and not at the end of the previous movie is at the very least questionable, especially considering how out of place it feels tonally with the rest of the film. By all rights, it should have been the climax of Desolation, and had it been it would have worked better. Unfortunately, making it the intro to the finale only served to tangle the narrative threads. The resulting mess ran through the rest of the movie.
Five Armies, and its titular battle, hinges on the dwarf Thorin’s descent into Dragon Sickness, an affliction that causes the sufferer to become wrought with greed and paranoia. Now that he and his band of dwarven warriors have reclaimed their lost homeland, Thorin falls victim to his greed and refuses to help the citizens of Lake Town despite his earlier agreement. This sets in motion a chain of events that pits dwarves against man against elves against orcs against animals.
The problem is that none of this is really characterized in any meaningful way. By the time this film has started, Thorin has turned a complete 180 from where he was and who we know when last we saw him. None of this is shown, however; we’re merely told he’s “suffering from Dragon Sickness” without any real explanation as to how or why this happened to him. Which is cool and all, but after spending a couple of years following Thorin and hoping for his success, it’s jarring to just see him all of a sudden be a completely different character.
But I suppose there’s no time for proper character development in a movie about a battle between five armies. With a premise like that, we ain’t got no time for no pansy-ass concepts like motivations and development. Right? Inasmuch as the bulk of the movie is a two-hour-long battle scene shot and choreographed in the Lord of the Rings oeuvre, The Battle of the Five Armies is fun to watch. What may be lacking in passion and soul, the movie does make up for with effects and fantasy war badassery. If you can get past the awkward pacing of the climax-as-intro beginning, and if you can shrug off some rushed development, you’ll be hard pressed to pull your jaw from up off the floor.
Really, though, you probably already fall into one of two camps anyway. You’ve either come along on the journey so far and you’re going to stick with it til the end – or you couldn’t care less and have no intention of seeing the movie. The Battle of the Five Armies — indeed, the entire Hobbit trilogy — already assumes what side of this debate you’re on, which is either its most fundamental problem or part of its charm. It’s not trying to win any new fans; it only cares about the fans who are guaranteed to pay money to see it. The end result is that it never quite reaches the artistic heights of its predecessor, and instead comes off as merely a product meant for consumption.
Whereas the Lord of the Rings trilogy introduced a new generation to the wonders of fantasy, The Hobbit, as a whole, feels like exists only to capture the dollar of a demographic. It might be good for what it is, but was it really worth the effort?